Adopting a Human Learning Model that Complements Lean Manufacturing

This article appeared in 2024 MMA Operations Conference event program. Learn more about MMA events.

The benefits of Lean Manufacturing and its associated methods and tools are undeniable. The concepts of waste elimination, process control and a focus on efficiency have led to a transformation in American manufacturing that has allowed us to compete globally. It has also helped us reshape our work environments from the dark, and sometimes dangerous, shop floors of 40 years ago to the normally clean, well-lit and safe modern shops we enjoy today. Lean Manufacturing has proven its value and is rightfully here to stay; but it does have its limitations.

Where Lean Manufacturing falls short is in the skill development of humans. Lean Manufacturing is not a model designed for human learning. It is a set of philosophies and strategies designed to help us develop processes to control things, such as materials, time and movement. Humans, and the way we learn, are not things to be controlled in the same way. Learning Lean rules and concepts is helpful for operating but limits depth of technical skill development. Manufacturers need true experts who see the big picture, are engaged in their craft and bring a sense of joy and pride to their work, along with much needed innovation and troubleshooting ability. Simply learning rules and processes is important but will not create experts. Learning to adhere to rules accounts only for the beginning stages of what it takes to form experts. We need to adopt a human learning model that takes us the rest of the way.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is a five-stage human learning model that was developed in 1980 by brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus. Hubert was a philosopher and professor, and Stuart was an aerospace engineer. The two of them recognized that, to become a true expert at a skill, humans must learn the rules of the job in the beginning but then be allowed the freedom to test the boundaries of the rules, with an understanding that mistakes will happen along the way. When people learn how to manage the rules in conjunction with their mistakes, over time, they begin to develop intuition about the work. When this happens, mistakes are reduced dramatically, and learners unlock their ability to become innovators, problem-solvers and fully engaged workers. If learners are not allowed to progress beyond this middle stage, the work becomes drudgery. Mental disengagement sets in, and a pattern of rework, scrap and lost efficiency follows.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is a human learning model that should be adopted by manufacturers because it enhances and complements Lean Manufacturing by adding the much-needed human elements in the later stages of skill development. Adopting the Dreyfus Model will open the door to new talent development strategies that are needed to foster the purpose-driven work cultures that we are all looking for. The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition provides the framework necessary to take the Lean Manufacturing journey to the next logical level, while also reaching the most important human needs of our organizations.

About the Author

Ryan PohlRyan Pohl is the founder of Praeco Skills LLC. He may be reached at

Ryan Pohl was a speaker at the 2024 MMA Operations Conference. Learn more about MMA events.

MMA LogoPraeco Skills LLC is an MMA Basic Associate Member and has been an MMA member company since May 2023.